The Real Meaning Behind Sugar Skull Makeup

Sugar Skull Makeup BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

As Halloween approaches, people are all clamoring to find the perfect costume. Especially after a year of zero celebrations and lockdowns, people are ready to get dressed up, get festive, and get out there. 

While you’ve probably seen a great deal of sugar skull makeup in the costume mix, it’s important to get educated on what that makeup represents, what Día de Los Muertos is really about (spoiler alert: it’s not Mexican Halloween), and why Day of the Dead costumes are actually pretty offensive if they’re not done right.

Let’s start from the beginning 

If you’re wondering if and when it is okay to wear sugar skull makeup and what that makeup really represents, then we’ve got your covered. 

First, some basics. Halloween, sometimes called All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve, takes place on October 31. Día de Los Muertos, aka Day of the Dead, takes place on November 1st and 2nd. It is believed that the souls of all deceased children come down from heaven and reunite with their families on November 1, and the souls of deceased adults come to visit on November 2. While they occur just days apart, and they do both involve makeup and traditions that are a departure from your typical routine, they are not the same thing.

Día de Los Muertos is a two-day Mexican holiday that honors families’ deceased ancestors through various traditions. It’s not about trick or treating or costume parties or an excuse to eat copious amounts of sugar while wearing some outlandish disguise; it’s about honoring relatives who are no longer here in this physical world through a series of traditions and offerings.

The true meaning behind the sugar skull makeup 

Unlike Halloween, when people relish the chance to dress up in scary costumes and terrifying makeup, the sugar skull makeup worn on Día de Los Muertos is actually a time-honored symbol that celebrates those loved ones who have passed away. The makeup, colorful decor, sugar skulls (painted skulls made out of sugar and left as offerings), and the ofrendas (offerings) are all ways to celebrate the lives of those we’ve lost. It’s a way to tell them that they are not forgotten and welcome their spirits back during this holiday. People also paint their faces with sugar skulls makeup to model the motif, and this look is a way to remind people not to fear death but to laugh with death and, more importantly, to celebrate life while we are living. 

Día de Los Muertos is not a somber occasion but rather a chance to reunite with the souls of loved ones.

As you can see, sugar skull makeup is a rich cultural tradition in celebration of Día de Los Muertos, with meaning that runs deep and has been passed on for generations. Despite those facts, many people mistake this makeup as a scary Halloween costume and inappropriate wear this makeup on October 31st, a move that many perceive as cultural appropriation and disrespectful to Latinx culture.

So, when is it okay (if ever) to wear this sugar skull makeup? 

Wearing sugar skull makeup can be done tastefully and respectfully, but it’s a delicate situation. First of all, you should never use this makeup as a way to mock the Mexican traditions or cultural significance of this holiday. Many people believe it’s disrespectful to wear this makeup on Halloween as a way to appear scary. If you wear this makeup to represent yourself or a loved one who is no longer with us, then it’s not only appropriate but also appreciated. In other words, don’t hit up Party City and try to replicate this look for your Halloween party. Do embrace the look if you’re honoring loved ones and raising awareness about the significance of this day and this tradition. 

According to Mexican-American makeup artists Andrea Ortega Costigan and Mariana McGrath, the founders of Salt Spell Beauty, it’s okay to wear sugar skull makeup when it’s done right and used respectfully. “Even if you’re not Mexican, we say go ahead and do that sugar-skull makeup for your costume party… All we ask is that you understand the meaning behind it, you take a little slice of the Mexican way, and you remember the people in your life who have passed on to the next.”